Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bade farewell to his Cabinet on Sunday, expressing confidence in the imminence of a coalition deal that would usher in a new cadre of ministers.
“This is probably the final meeting of this government,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly Cabinet session. “I wish to thank all of the ministers for their fantastic work over the past four years.”
The meeting was shunned by the outgoing ministers from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party — Eli Yishai, Ariel Atias, Yaakov Margi, and Meshulam Nahari — who have been fuming over their exclusion from a coalescing government that they perceive as being anti-Haredi.
At a meeting of Likud ministers before the Cabinet meeting, Netanyhau said that most of the policy principles for the next government had been agreed upon, and all that remained was to settle the matter of ministerial portfolios.
The prime minister said that representatives from his Likud-Beytenu, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home parties would meet on Sunday afternoon to try to push through a final agreement that is apparently snagged on which party will fill the education minister’s chair. Likud is apparently determined to see party member and current Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar maintain his position, while Yesh Atid would like the post to go to MK Rabbi Shai Piron.
At the opening of the Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu praised the outgoing government’s achievements, saying, “This government will be remembered as one that achieved more than almost any other government in Israel’s history.”
Turning to the incoming members of his presumptive next Cabinet, Netanyahu added, “I expect the ministers of the next government to take a cue from your dedication… Your work can serve as an example for the next government.”
After a nightlong meeting that ended Sunday morning, representatives of Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home indicated they hope to be able to form a new government as early as Tuesday. The sides reportedly came together on issues surrounding the assignment of ministerial portfolios (although some differences still remain), the particulars of a universal draft bill, and an understanding about the baseline policies of the new governing coalition.
One of the final sticking points appears to be a disagreement between the largely secular Yesh Atid and Jewish Home regarding an initiative to provide public transportation on Saturday. Another issue that’s holding up a deal is Bennett’s demand for the Public Diplomacy Ministry in addition to the position of industry, trade and labor minister.
Shas party leader Eli Yishai wrote on Facebook Saturday night that a coalition agreement without his ultra-Orthodox party was a fait accompli, and that his party’s exclusion from the government was a bitter moment for the State of Israel.
“The 2013 elections will be remembered as the day in which the entire public shunned the traditional and ultra-Orthodox Jews because of their beliefs and views,” Yishai wrote. “Kind words cannot sweeten the conflict and the deep rift that was created during the present period, but it will be remembered for many years to come.”
“With raised heads and with pride we will go to the opposition,” he said.
The coalition will likely comprise Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12), Hatnua (6) and Kadima (2), for a total of 70. Labor would lead the opposition, in which the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, would also sit, sources said.
The sources added that Lapid, who had hoped to become foreign minister, will instead serve as finance minister. The Foreign Ministry post will be kept open for former FM Avigdor Liberman, who resigned in December to fight corruption charges and hopes to return quickly to the post after clearing his name.
The defense minister will likely be former IDF chief of the General Staff Moshe Ya’alon (Likud); Housing could well go to Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, while the same party’s Eli Ben Dahan could take Religious Affairs; and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz could become minister of welfare. Other ministerial positions have yet to be finalized.
The emerging compromise on ultra-Orthodox military service will see 1,500-2,000 scholars exempted from service each year — a far higher number than the 400 cap Yesh Atid had sought. Ultra-Orthodox men will be called for service at age 22, not 18, in another reported compromise.
A Friday morning meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence between Lapid and Netanyahu yielded significant progress, both sides said.
Also on Friday, Bennett likened the talks to a birth, and, while indicating that a coalition with both his and Lapid’s parties was all but inevitable, cautioned that a deal with Netanyahu hadn’t quite crowned.
“If establishing the government was like a labor process, we’d be two fingers dilated, and the doctor would be optimistic,” Bennett tweeted.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.